Joe Biden did an extraordinary thing for an American president earlier this week: Without qualification, he supported the right of workers to form a union. Biden didn’t just weigh in on behalf of those seeking to unionize an Amazon distribution facility in Bessemer, Alabama. He also affirmed the importance of unions for all workers and for the good of the country. Conservatives and centrist media outlets often assume that the Democratic Party is “beholden” to “Big Labor.” In fact, the labor movement is the smallest it has been since 1900. And although Democratic presidents and members of Congress like labor well enough, they don’t exactly love it. They usually have concerns other than supporting workers who are trying to organize or defend a union. Behind closed doors, many Democratic politicians, including Biden, tell union audiences what they want to hear. On Sunday night, though, the president’s video about the Alabama organizing drive ricocheted around Facebook and Twitter, the social-media-age equivalent of a national address.
Before November’s election, amid the devastation of the pandemic and a massive reckoning with racial injustice, Biden was said to be planning a presidency more ambitious than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s. But to get any expansive agenda passed, Biden needs to create more space in American political culture for political advocacy on behalf of workers and unions. And he needs the American public to show support for workers’ rights. “Make me do it,” Roosevelt supposedly told civil-rights advocates and labor activists who wanted him to pursue bold actions. The quotation is almost certainly apocryphal, but the lesson holds: If you raise enough hell, I can help you.